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May 21, 2006

Whose Afraid of the Big, Bad Left? 10 Reasons Why Progressives Shouldn't Be
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Peter Beinart and others are worried that the fiasco of the Iraq War will result in the resurgence of a staunchly anti-imperialist, neo-isolationist left of the sort the American public will never trust with its national security.   I have been arguing for four years that progressives will not retake power if they are perceived not to trust America's military hand around the world. 

So while I agree with Peter's premise that only a robustly internationalist liberalism can resurrect American power and redirect American policy, I think its a mistake to get distracted at this point by worrying about how to manage the left.  Here's why:

1.  Talking up a hawk-dove progressive rift plays right into conservative hands - Conservatives would like nothing more than to paint the opposition as riven with divisions and wracked by isolationist, anti-interventionist sentiment.  This feeds their case that progressives cannot be trusted to defend America and that tough but blundering is better than cowardly and retreatist.  The fact is that progressives have come together to drive some major Congressional victories and are largely in agreement what needs to happen to put America on course.  We should not help conservatives paint us otherwise.

2.  9/11 and Globalization Dealt a One-two Punch Against Isolationism - While Americans rue the conduct of the Iraq war, the combination of economic and technological globalization and the 9/11 attacks have convinced most Americans that the U.S. cannot turn away from the world.  While Iraq has engendered grave misgivings about the Bush Administration's approach, history offers many other more successful models for America's global leadership.  Most Americans, even on the far left, will be receptive to internationalism as long as it is not of the Bush variety.

3.  Talk of isolationism today is greatly exaggerated - As I and others have written, Bush likes to talk about isolationism as a way to tar his critics as head-in-the-sand America-lasters.  The reality is that many of his opponents have far deeper internationalist credentials than he does and that few, if any, are arguing that America can retreat from global leadership.  Rather than arguing against supposed isolationists, progressives should expose Bush's attempt to deflect legitimate criticism by crying isolationism.

4.  Being anti-war doesn't mean being anti a strong defense and an aggressive foreign policy - Though the Administration would have us believe otherwise, there's nothing incoherent about supporting assertive, effective American global leadership and believing that a) the Iraq war was anything but and b) the problems in Iraq won't be fixed by a continued American prresence.  The Fighting Dems and the retired Generals who have openly criticized the conduct of the war all advocate a strong national defense and tough line on terror regardless of where they come out on Iraq.

5.  Iraq is not Vietnam - Vietnam did engender a long period of American isolationism and protracted misgivings about U.S. military intervention in virtually any form.  But Iraq won't do the same for various reasons:  the mistakes and misconceptions of the Iraq adventure are so obvious that people are less prone to believe any American intervention would be similarly flawed; also, as painful as Iraq has been, casualties still are small relative to Vietnam;

6.  The left want to win as badly as anyone - There aren't too many people left in the political debate who are arguing principle without reference to to whether or how they'll get a chance to implement what they believe.  Like all other progressives, the left is driven by a resolute, frustration-induced pragmatism. 

7.  They learned their lesson the hard way with Ralph Nader - Nader got 2.75% of the popular vote in 2000, enough to throw the result in favor of Bush, but attracted just .4% support four years later.  The left has learned that nothing can be taken for granted in elections.  Given how badly they want to win, they now know not to risk it.  This will be evident in this year's Congressional races and in 2008.

8.  Isolationism is Not a Factor in Policy Circles - Among the think tanks, policy institutes, and academic forums debating the future of progressive foreign policy, there's broad consensus on the need to maintain America's military advantages, to work aggressively and craftily to counter threats from terrorism and proliferation and to generally shore up American power and influence. While there are tactical disputes aplenty, no mainstream political candidate is going to get policy advice telling him or her to retreat globally.  If isolationism won't play out here, its hard to see how it becomes particularly damaging to progressive aspirations

9.  Ordinary voters can understand the basis for anti-war, isolationist sentiment - Voters know that the grave misjudgements of the Iraq War have given interventionism a bad name.  Whereas opponents of the Afghan war were seen as weak peaceniks, those who now advocate an unconditional withdrawal from Iraq have an argument that, whether or not they agree with it, voters can understand.  The execution of the Iraq war has giv

10.  By Fearing the Left, we Risk Losing Sight of What the Left May Have Right - We saw this in 2000 with Howard Dean and may be risking the same mistake with people like Paul Hackett.  The progressive mainstream was so afraid of Dean's meteoric ascent that they overlooked the profound mobilizing power that his perceived authenticity and straight-talk had for ordinary voters.  The grassroots activism, passion and energy on the left is a force to be bottled and used, rather than bottled up.  To the extent that anger over Iraq energizes people, progressives should not fear it, but should channel it in favor of an internationalist program to which both the war's original progressive supporters and its vocal opponents could subscribe.


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I'm not that far to the "left" but I'm far enough to resent characterization as "isolationist."

A couple of comments to this basically admirable post. First:
"Vietnam did engender a long period of American isolationism and protracted misgivings about U.S. military intervention in virtually any form."

Let's see: we left Vietnam in the spring of 1975. In December, 1979, Zbig Brszezinski welcomed the Soviet move into Afghanistan as an opportunity to go to war. That is not a "long period," and the initiative came from the Carter administration. This account, then, risks playing into stereotypes.

As to the rest, I agree that "Talk of isolationism today is greatly exaggerated." There is a huge difference between "isolationism" and opposition to ill-conceived foreign ventures. Few smart Athenians in 416 BC would have advocated giving up ties to the 100+ allies in the Athenian empire; some might have opposed the invasion of Sicily. Terms like "isolationism" blur the difference.

4. " Being anti-war doesn't mean being anti a strong defense and an aggressive foreign policy " For sure.

6. "The left want to win as badly as anyone" You bet.

7. "They learned their lesson the hard way with Ralph Nader" Noone I know voted for or said anything good about Nader. "They" creates a spurious linkage.

9. "Ordinary voters can understand the basis for anti-war, isolationist sentiment" They can probably tell the difference between "isolationism" and opposition to pointless wars. I'm disappointed to see the terms joined in this fashion.

10. "By Fearing the Left, we Risk Losing Sight of What the Left May Have Right" You bet. And one of the first things to get right is that the "Left" is often identical, for all practical purposes, with "we."

We need a way to talk about national defense that avoids the wholesale branding of individuals as enemies of America. Democrats engaged in this branding in the Fifties -- I've been through the files of Victor Riesel and of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. These assaults did immense damage to the nation. Any effort by the "we" of Suzanne Nossell's post to avoid such stigmatization in the future will be in the interests of the Democratic Party and of the US.

Dan Tompkins

Not to be pedantic, but lest the right should fault progessives for their devil-may-care attitude toward The Language of Shakespeare (tm), I think you mean "who's," not "whose."

I agree with much of this post but I'm irritated that the people who advocated one of the biggest f---ups in American foreign policy history, still see themselves as the gatekeepers for serious discussion.

BTW, I didn't vote for Nader, but it would be a mistake to believe that the left will go along with just anybody. There's not a chance in h-ll that I'm going to vote for Hillary if she contuinues to see herself as an American Thatcher. If we're going to strike Iran and blow up the Middle East, let a Republican president do it and suffer the repercussions.

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